Sep 302013

Driving my rental car out of the Whole Foods parking lot in Boca Raton, FL, I caught the eye of a woman holding a sign that said “I lost my job.” (There was more, but I didn’t have time to read the entire sign.) She was a young woman with dark hair, and her free hand sat atop the handle of a baby stroller. I knew she was there for money of course, and in the moment our eyes met, we exchanged a dense packet of information, a download of a hundred thousand gigabytes in a split second.

In an instant, I knew this: She was intelligent and decent, she was in profound emotional pain, she knew I’d spotted her and wanted to give her money, and she also knew I would not actually do so.

There were cars behind me and there was no place to pull over. I’m not used to big, busy South Florida parking lots. I felt (or imagined) the pressure of my fellow motorists’ expectations more keenly than the young woman’s desperation as I proceeded out the lot and onto the street, which had no shoulder.

But her eyes stayed with me, vivid in my mind, all the way to the chess club a few miles away.

I did not want to be bothered by guilt. I wanted to play chess. It even occurred to me that the guilt I felt could interfere with my chess game and cause me to lose. I wanted to go back and find the woman and give her five dollars, but there wasn’t time.

I knew that if I had given the woman money, I would have seen some relief in her face, not just at the receipt of a negligible amount of cash, but also at the small affirmation, the gesture assuring her that she wasn’t merely a blemish on the landscape. I’d had that experience before, as the giver of some small amount of money to a stranger, and had always taken away a nice feeling from it. I wanted that nice feeling now. It would have been worth more than five bucks to buy away my guilt.

But the guilt, and the searing impression of the woman’s pained eyes, were the only takeaway I had. I could only pray that some motorist behind me had found it in their heart to stop and give her something, that somebody had offered her some relief.

The guilt was a physical sensation, a little pain in my upper chest. It did not prevent me from enjoying my chess game. I committed an early blunder, but my opponent made mistakes too. The pain in my chest softened me toward my opponent. I sympathized with how he felt after his errors. We had a pleasant exchange after our game was finished.

The pain in my chest increased my appreciation of my old Florida high school friend, who had arranged this chess club interlude to coincide with my visit.

Most of all, the pain in my chest was a vulnerable point, a portal through which a simple fact penetrated: I am a vastly privileged human in a world of enormous suffering, and this is really not okay. There is something really wrong with this picture, and the guilt I feel—that is, the feeling I call “guilt”—is not inappropriate. And this pain in my chest (though it has already faded) deepens my life, and wakes up a part of me that habitually sleeps.


Tomorrow I will be spreading my mom’s ashes at sea, together with my sister and my mother’s long-time caretaker. This is why I am in Florida. My mother, who passed away last March, made no bones about wanting me to feel guilty, often. She did not apologize for inducing, or instilling, guilt. She said, “You call it a ‘guilt trip,’ as if guilt is some terrible thing, but you should feel guilty sometimes.”

I thought my mom was nuts. And I would still contend that guilt is a useless, toxic emotion, if it’s only about “I’m a bad person. Shame on me.”

But the guilt that resolves into simple pain, the guilt that isn’t so uncompromisingly self-referential, the guilt that seems to be a condition of my (our?) existence; maybe that guilt truly isn’t so bad. Maybe it’s healthy. Maybe guilt and compassion can lead to the same place, a place of pain, but not the type of pain that will kill you—rather, the type of pain that will break open your heart and your life.

I believe, in her heart of hearts and in her saner moments, that’s the only guilt my mom truly desired for me. Not a neurotic, personal guilt, but an unavoidable existential guilt that can be experienced as a small physical pain, like a backache that never quite disappears. A guilt that intensifies appreciation for the privileges that have always characterized my gilded American life. A guilt that softens my judgments, and renders my desires a little less urgent.

Sep 212013

I didn’t expect to still be writing about Louis C.K. this week, but a number of people responded to my last post by sending me Louis links they wanted me to check out. Three different people sent me links to the clip where Louis is telling Conan O’Brien about why he thinks cell phones are bad, especially for kids.

I don’t own a cell phone, and my friends correctly anticipated that I’d appreciate much of what Louis had to say on the subject, which was that prolific texting and app doodling are a distraction from our deepest human feelings, particularly existential sadness and loneliness. Or as Louis put it, “Underneath everything in your life there’s that thing, that empty . . .  forever empty. You know what I’m talking about? The knowledge that it’s all for nothing and you’re all alone.”

He went on to tell a story of hearing a song on the radio that brought up depressive feelings. He reflexively reached for his cell phone to text someone so he wouldn’t have to feel his sadness, but then decided: “Don’t. Just be sad.” He pulled over to the side of the road and “cried like a bitch,” and found that his sadness was in fact a beautiful, poetic feeling, and that after surrendering to the sadness he “had happy feelings, because when you let yourself feel sad, your body has, like, antibodies that come rushing in to meet the sadness . . . with true profound happiness.”

I would agree this is a valuable message, for kids and adults—the message that if we allow ourselves to feel our feelings as deeply and completely as possible, rather than running away from them, we live a healthier, fuller life and more often than not, we even feel better. And also that cell phones and their various features are an addictive distraction from a here-and-now vitally lived life.

At the same time, this all raises a question, doesn’t it? What is the “sad, forever, empty” thing that Louis cavalierly states is at the core of the human condition? Is it really true that “it’s all for nothing and you’re all alone”? I’m not saying he’s wrong; I’m just posing the obvious (I think) question.

And if feeling deep sadness allows “true profound happiness” to arise, is this merely the product of some defensive survival mechanism “like, antibodies” or is the “true profound happiness” as central and intrinsic to our nature as the “forever empty”? Are both of these feelings equally basic? If not, which of them is an illusion, and why does it work that way? Just asking. Anybody out there know?

Sep 162013

Louis C.K. and Me

A number of my friends are really into Louis C.K., possibly the nation’s hottest comedian right now. So I’ve extensively surfed his youtube clips.

I use profanity myself, and I’m no purist. But the man’s sentences are so prolifically seasoned with what’s commonly known as “filthy language” (“fuck” “shit” “asshole” “dick” “pussy” etc.) and so much of what he talks about is so outrageous (shitting in dead people’s mouths, for example) that apart from whether or not he’s even funny, the sheer aggression in his overall routine creates (in me at least) a kind of constant, “what’s-he-gonna-come-out-with-next,” low-level adrenaline buzz, like the after-effect of consuming too much sugary junk food. Even when he is expressing some arguably socially redeeming message—such as the idiocy of road rage or homophobia—he weaves in countless “fuck you’s” and his tone seethes with something like imminent cruelty.

I suggested to a friend that Louis C.K. succeeds by tapping into his audience’s repressed anger and hostility, and that people experience through him some kind of release. She responded that, yes, he addresses what’s repressed, but not only anger and aggression; it’s all the inadmissible emotions, such as disgust for one’s own children, that he blows the cover off of.

Humor Exposes Secrets

This brought to mind Dostoevsky’s protagonist from Notes from the Underground, who asserts that there are three types of secrets. The most superficial secrets are those you share only with your one or two most trusted people in the world. The next level of secrets are those you admit only to yourself. The deepest secrets are the ones you keep even from yourself. Dostoevsky’s character goes on to say that the more “respectable” an individual is, the larger their store of this third category of secrets.

I keep this in mind when I feel disturbed or grossed out by comedians like Louis C.K. Is he abrasive to my heart or merely my propriety? I’m not sure. Sometimes (though rarely) I do laugh at him. Bill Maher once said that laughter is an involuntary response; we don’t laugh because we judge something to be funny; we laugh because it makes us laugh. There is an unimpeachable authenticity about laughter.

On the other hand, I think we become conditioned to find certain things funny, and this is culture-dependent. A few years ago, I played a tape of an interview with a folksinger to a twenty-something friend. At the end, the interviewer says, “Unfortunately, a few days after this interview was taped, David died unexpectedly . . .” and my friend burst out laughing. He found this hilarious. And he insisted it was simply very funny.

My friend has a sensibility—a “funny receptor” if you will—that I lack. He is of a generation weaned on dark humor.

Looking Deeper into Darkness

Another striking example: I once saw a clip of comedienne Sarah Silverman saying she thought it was cool that one of her female Jewish ancestors had been raped by Cossacks, because the Cossack blood in her gave her a kind of “street cred.” Some in her audience were offended; she didn’t care. I wasn’t sure what I thought (though obviously I didn’t find it funny, because I was not moved to laugh).

In the novel The Gates of the Forest by Elie Wiesel, a holocaust survivor goes on a journey looking for some peace of mind after all the horror he’s seen. He stumbles upon a gathering of Jews, and a rebbe who has them dance and sing devotional, celebratory songs. They are unsuccessful in conjuring any real joy, until the rebbe tells them to do the unthinkable—start singing a filthy Nazi song. At first they are horrified but then they follow the rebbe’s instructions, and lo! after their initial resistance and revulsion, they do actually wind up laughing and singing with gusto, and their dancing becomes wild and spirited. The rebbe’s eyes sparkle as he sees the miracle he has wrought.

So dark humor can offer authenticity, vitality, and even healing. Today’s most popular humor is outrageous; it busts boundaries and violates taboos. This is probably a necessary thing. What remains repressed gathers power. Repression leads to personal rigidity and political/religious fascism.

All the Same . . .

Yet repression’s opposite—an “all is permitted” disregard for mores and conventions of decency—can lead to chaos, moral relativism, and cynicism.

Personally, I cannot and honestly do not judge what others find funny, but I won’t deny that much of today’s “hip” humor strikes me as pessimistic, nihilistic, and unpleasant. If I were to deny my own visceral response, that would be a form of repression too.

And it feels important to be honest about what I really find funny and what offends or disturbs me. Otherwise, oddly, an ethic of blanket permissiveness can turn into its own force of political correctness.